16 Books to Watch for in May 2011
This month, we're showcasing books that tell the truth—or part of it, anyway. From a bittersweet memoir of an exceptionally bad dog to a stunning novel of a family's scandal, there's something for everyone.
O, The Oprah Magazine |
April 22, 2011
In her luminous new new novel, Faith (Harper), author Jennifer Haigh has much more on her mind than religious belief; faith in your God may well matter, but so does faith in those you love and in yourself. With the sexual abuse scandal that rocked Boston's Catholic archdiocese in 2002 as the backdrop, narrator Sheila McGann recounts a chain of events that shattered her older half-brother Art's life as a priest when he was accused of fondling a young boy. "And the evidence either way—of his guilt or innocence—was very slim," Sheila says. The novel has the magnetic, page-turning quality of a detective thriller, but the clues here lead not to objective proof but to insight into a family both vividly specific and astonishingly universal—a family full of secrets, resentments, and divided loyalties. Sheila, another brother, and their mother react to Art's situation according to their own needs for self-justification, while Art refuses to fight the charge, not because he abused the child but because "in his own eyes he was not blameless. He was simply guilty of a different crime." Almost everybody in this wise novel has trespassed in one way or another—and everyone needs forgiveness. As Sheila reminds us: "Faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice." And every choice, we learn, has its consequence.
Most readers know Ann Packer from her best-selling debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Her stunning linked-story collection,' ' Swim Back to Me' ' (Knopf), is even better, richer, more insightful. Packer can break your heart—and she can mend it, too. Easing readers in with recognizable characters facing familiar situations—an adolescent boy agonizes over an unrequited crush, a newlywed worries when her husband is late coming home—she then injects a detail that makes us see the situations in a whole new light. If Packer's characters' crises are ordinary, what's unusual is the poignant way they attempt to right themselves after crushing hits. The multilayered novella that anchors the book, "Walk for Mankind," centers on a middle-aged man looking back to when he was 13, remembering the girl who betrayed him—and his own petty, impotent act of retaliation. In the story "Dwell Time," a wife discovers her husband's shattering secret habit and wonders, "What if she could be blasé, indifferent?... Would that spoil it for him? Enough to keep him from doing it again?" The final story, "Things Said or Done," is narrated by the girl from the novella, now also middle-aged. Her recollection of their adolescent years differs wildly from the events described by the man she wounded so long ago, a fact that seems—like so much in this fine work—surprising and absolutely true.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2008 version: Three lovelorn strangers are transformed by a magical night in a San Francisco park.
An irreverent memoir about a recovering alcoholic and the pet whose antics could drive a man to drink.
Holocaust-survivor parents, a day job counseling prisoners, a battle with cancer—all fodder for Greenstein's insightful, sardonic essays.
A riveting historical novel, set in post-WWII England, about a Polish couple reunited after enduring—and committing—crimes of love and war.
A heartbreaking novel of love and grief, based on the author's real-life horror story of losing his young wife in a freak accident.
The Sophie's Choice author's glamorous, brilliant, drunken life, and brutally tormented mind, as recalled by his youngest child.
An eerily cinematic novel about the filming of Psycho, in which the offscreen action takes a Hitchcockian turn.
The women in this engrossing collection grapple with the contemporary dynamics of race and gender—and age-old emotions like envy and regret.
A young woman's immigrant aspirations are complicated by a sexy hunk from the homeland in this darkly comic novel by one of our favorite authors.
Big girls do cry—and yell—at work, according to this lively, well-researched exploration of emotions on the job.
To most readers, Melissa Fay Greene is the prizewinning author of such journalistic gems as The Temple Bombing and Praying for Sheetrock. To her neighbors in midtown Atlanta, she's also known as the lady who, in 1999, the year before her oldest child left for college, decided to adopt more kids, at least partially to ward off empty-nest syndrome. At last count, she and her husband, Don Samuel, a defense attorney, have added five kids to their "bio" group of four: one from a Bulgarian orphanage and four from Ethiopia. Why they did it—and how they do it—is the subject of Greene's moving, enlightening, and surprisingly funny new memoir, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet (Sarah Crichton/FSG), which folds an adoption primer into a meditation on family.
"Everyone is somewhere else," declares the 14-year-old narrator of Jo Ann Beard's In Zanesville (Little, Brown). She's not just talking about the goings-on in her hometown (which her best friend, Flea, calls Insanesville); she's talking emotional displacement, too, as she attempts to navigate the tenuous territory between the weight of her parents' generation and what are supposed to be the most exciting years of her life. It's the 1970s, and the world is changing; everything she once took for granted begins to fall apart. Seriously, who would've thought she'd find herself estranged from Flea and schmoozing with the cheerleaders? Despite the unsettling and intriguing nature of this turn of events, our nameless narrator finds solace in Shakespeare—"'Tis new to thee"—and resolves to look forward. Masterfully wrought, in such a way as to make an oft-told tale feel new, this novel is at times downright hilarious and often hold-your-breath-and-hope-for-the-best suspenseful. The restraint with which Beard deploys moments of tension and humor makes each page glimmer like the frozen cornfields at dusk in which the narrator wanders and thinks, "We're on the moon out here, except the moon is up there."
When Francis Mason's class discovers a dead body on a field trip, the elementary school teacher goes into a freefall of self-destruction. Distancing himself from his pregnant wife and his job, he lashes out at everyone and everything in his current life; he can find solace only in his memories of Nora, his first love, the one that got away. "Ask me what I most remember about high school and the answer is the back of your head," he says to her during one of his many mental visits to the past. Bright Before Us (Tin House)—an ambitious debut novel from O assistant editor Katie Arnold-Ratliff—is a nihilistic road trip of a book, full of lyrical, dreamlike prose. It's also a story that reminds us that love, however deeply felt, is not necessarily pretty or kind.
Ginny Selvaggio, avid amateur cook and devotee of online culinary community Kitcherati, realizes that there's something different about her. She may never be officially diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome, but in The Kitchen Daughter (Gallery), 26-year-old Ginny is known by friends and family to be challenged as well as challenging. Then her parents die suddenly, and Ginny takes refuge in her favorite room—not to mention solace in the meals she can make there. Jael McHenry writes passionately about food and foodies—"If it had to be an olive his skin would be a cured Arbequina." More impressive, not one of her novel's plotlines—whether about an enraged ghost, an act of charity, or a fumbling flirtation between Ginny and her housekeeper's grief-stricken son, David—ends predictably. While Ginny is wonderfully single-minded about cooking, her fresh, sharp story has as many layers as a good pâte à choux.